On a cold, snowy evening in Western New York in 1834, a man sat at a desk gathering his thoughts. By the light of a flickering candle, he penned the following correspondence to the New York State Legislature:
"A report to the state assembly of New York, January 16, 1834. From the surveyor-general, in regards to the petition of the directors of the Buffalo and Black Rock railroad. I respectfully report that a plan of the railroad has been exhibited, and the route appears to be on the street or road laid along the (Erie) Canal from Buffalo to the Black Rock harbor, and thence about three-quarters of a mile over ground belonging to the state along the basin."
"It is in the opinion of this surveyor-general that the construction of railroad on this route will not affect the public land there injuriously."
"Respectfully submitted, Simeon De Witt, Surveyor-General"
News of the Mohawk and Hudson spread rapidly to other areas of New York State. By September of 1831, the desire to attempt to build a railroad in Buffalo was brought up at a meeting held at Benjamin Rathburn's Eagle Tavern. Many prominent citizens were in attendance at this gathering, and it was suggested that cooperation with Central and Eastern New York was essential in order for Buffalo to be linked with the Hudson River by rail. Unfortunately, for the time being, this project never got through the discussion stage. The Erie Canal was still the only way to travel to Albany from Buffalo. Then, in 1833, the railroad industry in Buffalo was born.
The red brick building in this painting is Benjamin Rathburn's Eagle Tavern. It is here that the great minds of Buffalo thought about building a railroad for the city. However the plans never materialized.
At a final cost of fifteen thousand dollars, construction began with track being crudely placed on the Terrace near Pearl Street. The route continued north to Ferry Street where Buffalo bordered the village of Black Rock, thus giving the railroad its name, the Buffalo and Black Rock. Even though it was the first railroad to operate within the Buffalo area, it was considered to be more of a street car line or a tramway. It operated on 'strap rails' which were nothing more than wooden ties laid down with iron straps, about a half inch thickness, running across the ties for the cars to travel on.
An example of the "strap rail" system. Note the cut nail used to secure the steel strap down to the wooden timber. These nails became notorious for pulling loose under the weight of the heavy locomotives.
At Black Rock, passengers would disembark for stage coaches bound for Niagara Falls or Rochester, or they would take a ferry boat across the Niagara River to Canada where they could continue their journey to Toronto or other points north.
The Buffalo and Black Rock was hardly a technological marvel when it finally began operations in 1834. Locomotion was provided by a horse that walked down the middle of the track. If there was a considerable amount of passengers on board for an excursion, another horse was added. The cars were nothing more than converted stage coaches mounted on iron wheels, and each held approximately 20 people when fully loaded.
The horse-drawn carriage of the Buffalo and Black Rock Railroad.
As one curious citizen noted, "the seats were planed boards with straight up and down backs, and they were wide open to the genial warmth of old Sol in the summer, and refreshing blasts of Lake Erie in winter. There was no special timetable and when the car arrived at either terminal, the horse turned his face to right about. The rolling stock was limited to two cars, one for fair weather, the other for stormy."
"The depot was in the open air at the southwest corner of Pearl Street and the Terrace. The old United States Hotel had recently been built , and the home station was there. One can almost picture the crowds of immigrants, Yankees, Germans, and Irish pressing westward. As high toned solicitors ploughed along the wharves, with all their polyglot of languages, with noisy exclamations of 'MEIN GOTT', 'BE JABERS', 'GOTT IN HIMMEL', 'SACRE BLUE', until the confusion, clatter of tongues and general racket become like the council chamber of pandemonium." -- Samuel M. Welch
The United States Hotel, at the corner of Pearl Street and the Terrace, served as the first station for the Buffalo and Black Rock railroad.
The sight of the Buffalo and Black Rock must have certainly caused a commotion in the city, which at that time had a population of sixteen thousand people. "The coming of the railroad, and the rapid rate in which it expanded during the 1830's, found the public wholly unprepared, and pretty much confused. Thoughtful men asked one another, 'what was a railroad?' " (Quote from "The Story of America's Railroads" by Stewart Holbrook)
Some historians say that it was built for the immigrants, in that it was a link in the water, coach, foot, and wagon lines leading to the northwest. However, these claims for this crude little railroad are a bit exaggerated. A ride cost roughly twelve cents, and there was no timetable. When the cars seemed full enough, the driver called for the horse.
While not exactly a tramway, a typical stage coach, seen here in front of the Genesee Hotel, was the model for the earliest form of rail transportation in Buffalo.
Perhaps one reason for the excitement surrounding the Buffalo and Black Rock was the fact that Buffalo was not a small city in 1834. In order for the citizens living uptown to travel downtown for business and work, they had to walk. The railroad eliminated this. Here was simplicity at its best, but the general idea, and the potential for further progress with rail transportation was obvious. Buffalo had its first railroad. It would not be long before she would have many more.